The phrase ‘the news’ can sound quaint and conjure up the image of Walter Cronkite delivering the day’s happenings to the American public gathered at home. He was the most trusted man in the country and when he said “that’s the way it was,” well, that was the way it was.
Today, of course, the news is different. There isn’t one stentorian anchorman reading from behind a desk every evening; we now have hundreds of hosts casting snark and snipe around the clock. Newspapers delivered every morning feel more and more like someone’s printed out last night’s internet. And of course, it’s no longer a one-way street. News and the discussion of news have a common forum in the internet. Social media and in particularly Twitter have changed the relationship. But then again, that isn’t news to anyone.
With this new structure, anyone interested in staying up on current events now has a bigger task in organizing what they read, watch, and listen to. And it’s often overwhelming. The crush of information and the constant interaction leads everyone to feel like they’re missing out. Friends and coworkers mention this feeling all the time, deferring to me as a ‘news guy’ and assuming I spend a lot more time taking in the news. I don’t really though. I just have a setup that allows me quickly and enjoyably sift through the information barrage, picking out what intrigues me most.
This post is an explanation of that setup which hopefully helps anyone fighting that disconnected feeling by giving an easily built structure for getting news in the era of electrons. There is no cure-all, but with this setup, you can know you’re getting information in the most efficient way possible, so that you can just choose to get more or less depending on your taste -- and when it feels like too much to sift through still, well, you can be comfortable knowing that it’s silly to try to read everything in the first place. So with that, I introduce my: Digital Guide to Getting the News.
Staying on top of everything interesting published on the internet can feel like drinking from a firehose. With so much coming across the transom at the speed of 140-character wit, it can seem useless to dip into the stream. This guide aims help readers to add filters to that firehose so that the worthwhile reads can be slowed down and spooned off for later while the forgettable can be left to evaporate on the pavement. This guide maps out how to scan, read, and save passively in order to more actively catch up with worthwhile news in one’s downtime.
There are three main tasks to consuming just the reads you find worthwhile:
- Set up sources that send the most interesting cocktail of stories to you
- Skim that mix of sources and stories on fast but enjoyable platforms
- Use time efficiently, in particular by time-shifting and device-shifting your reading
WHERE THINGS ENDS UP
Considering the last question first, one needs an end-location for all stories in order to shift reading time. Pulling from tons of sources is sustainable and not at all crazy, so long as the worthwhile reads end up in the same inbox.
Right now, I find Evernote serves as the best inbox. It’s an application for every digital platform (web, mobile, desktop) that’s reliable, free (or cheap), and utterly indispensable. Evernote is where any “I should check that out” articles or thoughts can be left for later. It captures and downloads the data on a page (pictures, text, URL, links) so that you have everything readable or accessible later. As the name suggests, it’s also wonderful for organizing and writing notes. Set up a default folder in Evernote for any clips to end up (mine’s called “The Docket”, though I like Lifehacker’s suggestion of “_INBOX”) where you can view articles later, then delete or archive them in a different folder. Any clips or automatic forwards (I’ll discuss later) ideally end up there for your perusal later.
Over-extending the metaphor then: if your news stream is a firehose, Evernote is the bowl into which you can funnel out interesting pieces of news for later. But, as I rediscover every time I try to wash a spoon under a faucet and get sprayed all over, there has to be a middle step. For news consumption, that’s where you have to build a structure to do most of the work for you.
Lifehacker has a great overview of how to use Evernote. It describes the service in general rather than just in the context of keeping up with interesting reads. Personally, in addition to news consumption, I use it as my journal, my sketchboard for blogging, my poetry notebook (forgive me, I minored in poetry), and an archive of anything interesting that I want to keep around after reading.
- RSS Aggregator - Whether it’s traditional media like the New York Times or other news sources like blogs, nearly all websites you’d want news from push their posts in an RSS feed. Google Reader is by far the easiest way to engage with these feeds - just search for a source or URL in the subscribe box and it’ll give you the feed. [Very sadly, it was announced recently that Google Reader will be shuttered. Update on that to come, but in short it looks like Feedly’s planning to take its role.] You can subscribe to as many RSS feeds as you want and organize them into folders however you please. Think of the platform as a one-stop cache of the stories from your preferred sources. Google Reader itself is very bare bones though. It’s not easy to use on mobile and a bit clunky on a browser, keep reading on to Materials for how to remedy this.
- Twitter - I had to be convinced, but I’m fully in love with Twitter now. The cognitive leap happened when I realized that it isn’t for updating everyone on your goings-on; it’s for tailoring exactly who you hear from. The journalists, politicians, bloggers, etc. that interest you can be mixed and organized so that you can hear about what’s going on in, say, politics, at a given moment AND what articles or news pieces have floated to the top of the discussion. In modern news, Twitter has three counterintuitive virtues that immediately come to mind:
- Deep Reading - It’s not just a way to know what’s going on right now, it’s also where to hear about relevant writing longer than 140 characters. Counterintuitively, Twitter shares lots of long articles (perhaps because they’re the ones that provoke discussion). Easily the majority of long-form articles I’ve read in the last several years were originally found on Twitter.Diversity - Reading even the best mix of news sources still limits you to the views and writings of those sources. Since Twitter is a discussion among individuals rather than the composed product of an institution, you constantly learn and connect with new sources.
- Conversation - Connecting with interesting people on Twitter is sometimes more ego than real discussion (“OMG Emily Bazelon responded to my tweet!”), but the tight word limit compels people to respond and get to the point. I’ve had interesting responses and interactions with people whose work I adore. On top of that, Facebook friends and Twitter followers aren’t synonymous. With Twitter, you’re sharing thoughts and links in the most bare-bones and democratic way possible. Your interests and intellect really come through, so when you do have a perfunctory “we should connect online” moment with someone in real life and later follow / friend them, Twitter feels like a real discussion while Facebook feels like you’re eavesdropping on them hanging with their actual friends.
- Major Publications - Magazines, newspapers, etc. Old school but the magnetic points around which all these newfangled blogcasts and tweetpods align. As much as I rely on the technological transom for my news, the experience of going to a source like the New Yorker or the Wall Street Journal and reading their product in their atmosphere is wonderful. Maybe it’s an all-digital publication like Slate, but maybe you don’t want to sift through an RSS or twitter feed when you can peruse the site itself. For the purposes of technological news consumption, use their RSS feeds where you can (e.g. I have the FiveThirtyEight feed, but not the whole NYTimes feed) but generally just clip anything for later with the Evernote Web Clipper or use another one of the means described in “Materials” below.
- [Honorable Mention] Podcasts - One of my favorite media of all. I listen to tons of podcasts (see Favorite Podcasts) and even run a popular one of my own with some friends (True Story). Podcasts are great for so many reasons, but ultimately they’re a matter of taste and habit. For me, they’re indispensable. I love audio’s ability to be intimate and casual, but still incredibly rich. I constantly find education and entertainment in podcasts, all the while getting some simple errand or commute out of the way. I could pontificate about podcasts all day long, but since they’re outside the written word, there’s no real system I’ve devised for them and no specific role in the news consumption setup here aside from: “I love them and they help me connect to everything.” Check out the list in my previous post for some of my favorites.
The Floor Plan
First and most importantly, create lists in your Twitter and Google Reader. If these platforms represent your foundation, a good set of lists is the floor plan. Applications discussed below pull from these two sources and rely on lists for organization. Any changes made to lists in these applications will flow through. Super easy.
The art of lists is simple: create a list for each area of interest and, most importantly, create a priority list for your favorite sources. If you’re like me, you’ll have a variety of interests but will never be able to keep up with everything you’d want to read about politics or everything you’d want to read about design. There’s just too much. Priority folders/lists have the sources you love and don’t want to miss. An example: my Twitter lists, sans the private Priority and Friends lists. Another interesting approach is to include lists how you read rather than what, i.e. instead of a “Politics” folder, a “Morning Coffee” folder.
So, just looking right now, I have 935 unread items in my Politics RSS folder but I’m okay with that because I know the feeds I don’t want to miss anything from, like FiveThirtyEight or Hendrik Hertzberg, are also in my Priority folder that I read first. I won’t miss the important stuff and the rest can be dealt with when I’m in the mood to just read about politics or when I’m on an application like Flipboard or Feedly that features random articles based on their algorithms. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As an aside, Twitter and RSS feeds of course aren’t mutually exclusive as the means of getting news People often debate the merits of one versus the other. A great recent Wonkblog post entitled The Problem with Twitter points out how information-poor Twitter is and how difficult that problem is to solve without losing the immediacy that makes Twitter valuable. I personally think Twitter and RSS feeds are a necessary combination: Feeds are 100% information - direct and simple to organize. Twitter is discussion - random and chaotic. One is the library while the other is the lunchroom; we’d be worse off in class if we kept to one and never entered the other.
Here’s where it gets more complicated in the service of eliminating complication from the daily news reads. This is when you stop being an architect and start being an engineer. To do so, we need to define our tools [Fair warning, my mobile devices are Apple, so recommendations based on that experience]
- Chrome - The best browser out there, first for its speed but more importantly, for its customizability. Clip anything on the web directly into Evernote with the Evernote Web Clipper: text, video, photos, you name it. It wraps them up with any tags, folders, and URLs you’d want. Crucial for Evernote. Furthermore, Chrome is the platform that these next two tools rely on.
- Feedly - Essentially a user interface or ‘skin’ for Google Reader, but a beautiful and valuable one. Feedly has both a Chrome extension and a mobile app. Both are gorgeous and make the RSS feed experience a complete breeze. All your folders, stars, etc. in Google Reader show up in Feedly, and vice versa. [NOTE: With Google Reader now getting the axe, Feedly announced that it will “seamlessly” transition your RSS feeds]
- Tweetdeck - The best way to read Twitter on a computer. Another Chrome extension that allows you to get an information-dense, fully customizable stream of twitter feeds. You can apply multiple accounts, use keyboard shortcuts, and just generally draw from a whole barrels of goodies. As an example, my Tweetdeck has streams of: Timeline, Priority Folder, Politics Folder, Interactions (@kevinstownsend), Mentions (@kevinstownsend), Tweets (@truestorytime), and too much more.
- Flipboard - A mobile application that mimics a magazine experience on a smartphone.or tablet. It’s my favorite user experience for reading news on the go, even over the fetching Feedly. Flipboard is more than Feedly though - the “timelines” you can set up include the big three from the Foundation section above (Google Reader folders, Major Publications, and Twitter), each entirely customizable in ways similar to Tweetdeck. Flipboard can even set up streams directly from news sources, social media, and their own Flipboard-curated channels. For an example, I have my Politics folder from Google Reader next to The New Yorker® next to my Politics Twitter folder... next to my Facebook next to my LinkedIn etc. It contains multitudes.
- Sidenote: The streams Flipboard curates themselves actually do an amazing job. Design and Tech are of course great, but if I’m out of the loop for a day, I know the first five items in Flipboard’s general “News” timeline will have the five most important stories of the day. Much more useful than I expected for such a design-focused product.
- Tweetbot - All twitter mobile apps are equal, but some are more equal than others. I think the functionality, flexibility, and experience of Tweetbot is the best. Worth the $3. Just think about how much the phone cost and what you bought a smartphone for anyhow.
- Instapaper - Something of a competitor to Evernote, but essentially a bare-bones “Read Later” tool [guide here]. It has a web clipper and mobile app as well, but I prefer the wider reach of Evernote (in content-type and usage options) as an final inbox. It’s a modest and beautiful thing though. Apps like Flipboard and Tweetbot include it as a “Read Later” option. So that link to an amazing 2000 word article you found on Twitter doesn’t have to be read in Tweetbot. Just “read later” in the friendlier Instapaper app/site or, better yet, find that it’s shown up in your Evernote. Because magic! (see below)
- IFTTT - If This Then That is as simple and direct as its name. It enables any random occurrence on a web service to act as a trigger for any action on another. IFTTT is the internet’s omni-epoxy. Useful for more than just news, it’s nonetheless a powerful (and passive) way to go that extra mile to collecting everything into one inbox. Browse the service’s “recipes” for some interesting uses. A personal favorite recipe: any photo tagged of you on Facebook is automatically imported to a designated Dropbox folder.
This section puts everything together: here’s how to use the tools from Materials to bring news from sources in Foundation home to your Evernote inbox, all the while moving through user-friendly formats.
This diagram illustrates the full structure. It’s a bit much, I know, but the I’ve done the research and testing for how to set it all up and that’s almost all the effort. Anyone can set it up in an afternoon and have their news easily streamlined, all happily ever after and such.
- Set up the platforms from Foundation
- Create lists
- Add accounts with all the tools from Materials
- Link them with the following:
- IFTTT Recipe #1: Every starred item in Google Reader (and, by extension, Feedly) appears in Evernote [A useful alternative for Feedly in Chrome is its “Send To”-style buttons with Evernote, Instapaper, Pocket, and delicious. On mobile, there’s a “Read Later” that can tie to Instapaper or Pocket, but not Evernote.]
- Evernote Chrome Extension
- Add Instapaper to the “Read Later” functions of Flipboard and Tweetbot
- IFTTT Recipe #2: Every new item in an RSS feed sends to Evernote - use the RSS feed URL from Instapaper so that any “Read Later” item flows all the way to Evernote (Instapaper folders have their own RSS feeds - copy the URL for your Unread folder)
- Pat yourself on the back
And that’s it. As technologies and usage change, aspects of this guide may no longer work. Some portions may become easier (I think the “Read Later” linkages will become more widespread) and some portions may become harder (RSS feeds have a rockier path with Google Reader expiring in July). To help further clarify this structure though I’ll run through a few case examples -- a PDF illustration of this setup and these use cases can be downloaded here.
- The Boing Boing RSS feed publishes a video you find interesting, but don't have time for at the moment. Seeing it in Feedly on Chrome, you send it to Evernote using the Feedly "Send To" button.
- In browsing NYTimes.com on Chrome, an editorial sticks out to you, but it's too long to read for the time being. So, you just hit the Evernote Web Clipper and sit down with it later.
- Waiting in line for coffee, you pass the time on your smartphone browsing Flipboard. John Dickerson (@jdickerson, listed in your "Priority" Twitter folder) tweets out a link and, from the tasteful image Flipboard generates using the content, the article looks interesting. You're about to order your coffee, so you hit the "Read Later" button that sends it to Instapaper. IFTTT sees the addition in your Instapaper's RSS feed and forwards the article to Evernote.
Finally, it’s important to avoid using this setup to substitute a stress over news disconnection for stress over keeping up. I use the term “inbox” for Evernote, but I’m in control of every addition to my Evernote. The tech writer Farhad Manjoo mistakes feeds for an inbox in a piece hat claims an RSS feed is "like having an inbox stuffed with e-mail from overactive listservs.” Never stress about the number of unread items in a given RSS feed or Twitter feed. That’s the firehose, the overwhelming stream of information that you can’t hope to always stay fully on top of. In fact that’s one of the benefits of having an inbox like Evernote for news -- the “unread” number that matters is a number that you decide on because you choose how much you want to read and when. Perhaps that’s even the major distinction between news in Cronkite’s era and today: the audience is in control now, for better and worse. And with this control, equipping ourselves in the face of the information expanse is all the more necessary.